Active Measure and Active Blind Spots

Documentary fails in its critique of the Trump and Putin presidencies

On October 11, in the Schwartz building, room 215, the Antigonish Film Festival screened the documentary, “Active Measures,” about the confusing and complex ties between President Trump, Russian oligarchs (and mobsters), and Russian President, Vladimir Putin. 

There is a lot going on in this documentary, and in the parlance of Online™, it possible has the most going on. It is a mix of legitimate concerns about Russian interference and ties to the American President, but much of this information is received uncritically from ghoulish American apparatchiks with a history of loudly calling for war against any nation brave enough to denounce American imperial and commercial interests. 

It provides a very superficial history of the end of the USSR, making connections between the state asset sell-off to Putin and, completely and bizarrely, ignoring completely the involvement of American interests and advice on how to sell off assets of the Russian state. The resulting oligarchic make up of Russian commercial and financial classes are a result of American support and involvement. The privatization drive by American interests, a deeply neo-liberal austerity ideology, would be replicated again and again against other nations by the International Monetary Fund to significant damage to those nations. So much damage in fact, that the IMF later apologized for their blinkered ideology to Greece for worsening their economic situation. 

To be sure much of the information contained in the documentary has already been reported on by various news outlets in varying amounts. Active Measures, is among the first to put the information together into a single documentary that runs about two hours, end to end. It rushes at a breakneck pace, often introducing a talking head for split seconds, hardly enough time for the audience to know their name and their connected organization (at one point I looked down to take a note and when I looked back up there was a brief mention of Chilean President, Salvador Allende, but had appeared so quickly that I failed to understand his connection to the narrative, and the documentary failed to note that he was assassinated by CIA-supported operatives and ushered in an era of extreme authoritarian violence that Chile struggles to reconcile to this day). It struggles to find a place to end the documentary and, like an undergrad with too many sources for a short essay, continually shovels lesser and lesser information near the end of the film. 

The documented ties between the Trump Organization’s minions, like Paul Manafort, and Russian business men and criminal enterprises, are myriad. The sheer amount of paperwork, from a wide variety of sources, legal, financial, and personal, is staggering. However, had the documentary restrained itself by focusing on the paper ties between the two groups would have been a full-feature film in itself, it may have been engaging and more easily followed. Instead, the director reaches and makes a concerted attempt to include, not only the vast volume of paper trails together, but also, interviews with a surprising number of American politicians, ambassadors, think tank fellows, political junkies, and, improbably, CIA employees and directors waxing richly about foreign involvements and the danger of Russia. With all this information, including background and a detailed biography of Vladimir Putin, the film loses focus and directive and becomes about everything.

The thrust of this film is that Russia is a dangerous, unpredictable actor that threatens the world stage with war. About which there is some truth. Russia invaded George under false pretenses in 2008, has backed Ukrainian separatists from 2014 onward (even providing soldiers and arms), and invaded and annexed Crimea in the same year. However, it’s hard to take seriously the warnings about interference and the dangers of war from men and women who represent organizations that have, not only called for unilateral warfare against a staggering number of nations, but have also been involved in regime change around the world (and this is only counting from the end of the Cold War).

The documentary takes to task the confusing game of shell corporations that the Trump Organization has used to hid, obfuscate, and launder money into the United States from foreign nation and businesses. However, this critique is not particularly strong considering this problem is not unique to the Trump business or to Trump himself, but is widely prevalent across financial interests in America. This critique would be much stronger if it did not limit itself to Trump but was widened to include American neo-liberal capitalism. Trump is just one of many bad faith financial actors facilitating foreign influences and money into American politics and economics. 

This is not a “what-about-ist” review of the film, but an earnest critique of the wide and considerable political and ideological blind spots of the director. What good is a critique of President Trump if you do not also critique the system that made it possible for a person like him to become wealthy, powerful, and influential? In the quest to portray Vladimir Putin as having flawlessly executed some Machiavellian scheme, the director has actually portrayed the American government and its institutions as hapless, naive simpletons, which, in actuality, is a form of twisted and unintentional macabre comedy. 

Putting aside the fact that America has exercised nearly unlimited covert and overt operations to destabilize nations it deemed problematic through violence, murder, and propaganda. The reality is that American political establishments have, for the last 50 or so years, been so bent on undermining the basic regulations and legal protections that prevent economic and political abuses, that they have allowed the system to produce ever increasing wealth disparities and allowed business interests, of which Trump is but just one of many, to gain power and influence and, all in the name of misanthropy and gluttonous personal greed.

But, is it worth watching?

If you’re curious about the relationship between Donald Trump and Vladimir Putin and not sure what’s all the fuss is about and you want to know, you will probably enjoy the film.

Although, if you’re already knowledgeable about that relationship and are looking for a deeper critique of the world at large, watch anything by Adam Curtis.

Stray Observations:

The documentary takes Russia Today television to task for having on conspiracy theorists (like Orly Taitz and Alex Jones) and rightly so, however, it makes no mention that many American media outlets boosted their image and status much more so than Russia Today ever could have. Taitz herself had appearances across American media during Obama’s time as president.

Criticizes the role that men like Paul Manafort and Roger Stone had with Donald Trump but makes no mention that these men have been closely tied to American politicians and the GOP since the Nixon administration.

Mentions the “troll farms” and “fake news” that pushed anti-Clinton and pro-pro-trump messages but ignores the, arguably, best bit of propaganda, which featured a psychedelic cartoon of a very muscular Bernie Sanders in a speedo.

Suggests that “Pizzagate” and Seth Rich murder conspiracy was a Russian operation, but more likely they boosted American right-wing conspiracy theorists and let the American Media continue the job they do best; providing uncritical coverage of sensational news.